Few things catch Hal Lamb by surprise, but what greeted the Calhoun High School football coach this summer made him look twice.
The Class AA Yellow Jackets, fresh off a state championship season, opened training camp with 125 players. The program's numbers have been growing steadily over the past decade, but the veteran coach never envisioned a school of 645 students suiting up that many players.
Lamb doesn't cut players who put in the required work, and he readily accepts the challenge of being a teacher first, but sometimes, he admits, the sheer numbers can become a detriment.
"We always try to over-prepare, but when you get to 125 you don't anticipate that happening," Lamb said. "On one hand you want as many players as you can get, because it gives you an opportunity to affect a kid's life, and that's why we're in this business. However, when you are eight-deep at every position it's tough to deal with. It's very difficult for the individuals to get repetitions."
The last thing a coach wants is to have too few players, and when many coaches take over programs the first object is to get as many athletes on the field as possible. Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd, whose squad has grown to 100 this year, agrees with Lamb that more isn't always better.
"My first priority when I took over was to get numbers up," he said, "but now it's kind of tough to keep up with everyone. It's hard to give everyone the individual coaching you want to, but we do make sure everyone gets reps during practice."
Ringgold coach Robert Akins has worked with rosters of all sizes, and because he likes to interact closely with each individual, he prefers a team that doesn't get too big. Because he also doesn't cut players, Akins decided that to keep the Tigers' roster manageable he would ensure those who make it truly want to be part of the program.
"We're at 70 players right now, and that's a little down for us, but I prefer this size," he said. "We made an effort to minimize our numbers by making practices tougher and asking more of them in the offseason. We wanted kids who really wanted to play, and so far the kids have responded very well. To me, players need to play and practice in order to improve, and if you have too many you can't do that."
Whatever roster size he has had to work with, Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis has two simple rules: Everyone gets to play every week at some level, and each player gets as much individual attention as possible. To do that, the Panthers' coaching staff has grown along with a roster that's up to 92.
To keep everyone involved, the Panthers have a junior varsity and a freshman team plus a practice scout team. Mariakis believes keeping his roster close to 100 is an optimal size.
"My coaches know that one of my pet peeves is I don't want kids standing around in practice," he said. "We had 32 player that first year, so that was tough, but you also don't want too many. With our current number, we can ensure every player gets to play in a game every week, and that not only helps grow our players, it keeps our numbers up as well."
Assistant sports editor Stephen Hargis contributed to this story.